Everyone who gets into bourbon asks these same questions, so we’ve compiled the complete beginner’s guide to bourbon. If you have additional questions please leave a comment and we’ll answer it there.
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Get Started: Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon
What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?
The short answer: All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.
The long answer: Whiskey (or you might see it as whisky but it’s the same drink) is made from a fermented grain mash including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Sometimes these grains are also malted. This spirit is generally aged in wood barrels (sometimes called casks).
What is the Definition of Bourbon Whiskey?
Bourbon truly is America’s native spirit which was enshrined into law by Congress in 1964 when they called it a “distinctive product of the United States” and set up the requirements for when whiskey transforms into bourbon.
Here are the cliff notes version:
- It must be made in America (sorry Kentuckians — bourbon can be made outside of the bluegrass state).
- It must have 51% corn in its mash bill but the other grains are up for grabs. Generally, the secondary grains are rye and barley, but some of the most highly renowned bourbons use wheat as the second grain and barley as the third.
- Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
- Cannot be distilled over 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume).
- Must enter the new, charred oak barrel at 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume) or less.
- Bottled at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
What Are the Types of Bourbon Whiskey?
The types might fall into different categories. We will start with the different types of bourbon mash bills.
The most common bourbon mash bill has the required 51% corn, a secondary grain of rye, and barley.
This mash bill can be high rye (e.g., Wild Turkey, New Riff) or low rye (e.g., Elijah Craig, Buffalo Trace). The higher the rye generally the more spice is present.
The next most popular mash bill replaces the rye with wheat. So you might 51% plus corn, wheat, and barley.
This mash bill was made popular by the now defunct Stitzel Weller distillery in the mid-twentieth century with brands like Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Weller, and Pappy Van Winkle.
These wheated bourbons are still being made today but by different distilleries after Stitzel Weller shut its doors in 1972. The wheat is a softer flavor and takes premium aging well.
Let’s call the last type experimental. Some distillers are more adventurous with their mash bills than others. You will have mashbills that include four grains (corn, wheat, rye, and barley), five grains, or other grains like amaranth, malted grains, triticale, rice, oat, millet, or sorghum.
The other types of bourbons would fall into a categories we’ll discuss below — straight bourbon whiskey and bottled in bond.
What does bottled in bond mean?
Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 was one of the first consumer protections laws and was passed in response to adulterated bourbon whiskey that was in some worst case scenarios killing people.
As with many government regulations, distilleries who sought this designation for their spirits received a tax incentive.
Having the bottled in bond tax strip was a badge of trust in the eyes of consumer. Here’s the gist. The spirit must be:
- the product of one distilling season
- the work one of one distillery
- demonstrate the skill of one distiller
- aged for no less than 4 years
- bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume)
Also, if you’re looking for a bottled in bond whiskey chances are you’ll run across one from the Heaven Hill distillery. They have a deep and delicious catalogue of bottled in bond bourbons and whiskeys.
What is straight bourbon whiskey?
Straight bourbon whiskey is all about consumer protection, aging, and proof. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 dictated that “straight whiskey” must be distilled from a fermented cereal grain mash, may not be distilled higher than 160 proof (80% ABV), aged for a minimum for 2 years, and enter the barrel no more than 125 proof (62.5 ABV). Only water may be added to bring the proof down.
Last, any straight whiskey aged less than four years must have an age statement, and it always reflect the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
You’ll notice the original question was about “straight bourbon whiskey” and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 dealt mainly with “straight whiskey” that’s because bourbon wasn’t officially bourbon until 1964. That’s why you’ll also notice some of the “straight” requirements mirror bourbon’s like the distillation and barrel entry proof.
To be designated, “straight bourbon whiskey” a spirit must not only meet all of the requirements from the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 but also meet Congress’ 1964 definition of what bourbon is.
Also, in common parlance, “straight” can also be a request for a whiskey or bourbon without ice or other add ons at a bar. “Hey bar keep, give me a shot of Maker’s straight.”
What is the difference between Single Barrel and Small Batch bourbon?
These terms can be confusing for bourbon newbies. Single barrel is the easiest to define so we’ll start there.
After the spirit is distilled, it’s moved to barrels where it becomes bourbon whiskey. Some barrels may have exceptional flavor on its own.
Distilleries market and sell this bourbon whiskey as a single barrel. This designation was popularized by Colonel Albert Blanton at the now Buffalo Trace Distillery and is sold as Blanton’s.
It’s a single barrel of bourbon whiskey not mingled or blended with any other barrel.
Small batch is less clear and can cause confusion. There are no regulations on what small batch means. It might mean a craft distillery mingling 5-10 barrels to hit their desired flavor profile. Or it might mean a larger distillery mingling 200 plus barrels.
Some popular small batch bourbon whiskeys include Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, and Elijah Craig.
Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon: 59 Bourbons for Beginners
We’ve compiled a complete list of bourbons ranked for every budget. You can scroll through each category and also see how each bourbon compares by price and availability — Best Bourbons Ranked for Every Budget.
Get To Know Your Bourbon Abbreviations and Acronyms
Upon entering the world of bourbon, you probably noticed there’s a language you have to learn. It’s full of acronyms and abbreviations. We’ve got you covered below with our complete bourbon abbreviations.
|4R – Four Roses||ER – Eagle Rare||NAS – Non Age Stated||RHF – Rock Hill Farms|
|4RYL – Four Roses Yellow Label||ER17 - Eagle Rare 17||ND – National Distillers||Ritt – Rittenhouse Rye|
|AA or AAA – Ancient Age||ET – Early Times||NDP – Non Distilling Producer||RR – Russell’s Reserve|
|AB – Abraham Bowman||ETL – Elmer T. Lee||OB - Orphan Barrel||RRR – Russell’s Reserve Rye|
|ABV – Alcohol By Volume||EW – Evan Williams||OC – Old Charter||RY – Rebel Yell|
|AE – Angel’s Envy||FC – Fighting Cock||OCPR – Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve||SA – Smooth Ambler|
|AECS – Angel’s Envy Cask Strength||FRSBLE - Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition||OCT – Old Cousin Touchers||SAOS – Smooth Ambler Old Scout|
|AHH – A. H. Hirsch||FRSmBLE - Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition||OF – Old Fitzgerald (not Old Forester)||Saz – Sazerac 18 from the BTAC|
|AS – Age Stated||GD – George Dickel||OFBB – Old Forester Birthday Bourbon||SB – Single Barrel|
|B25 – Booker's 25th||GNS – Grain Neutral Spirits||OGD – Old Grand Dad||SFTB – Straight From The Barrel|
|B30 – Booker's 30th||GTS – George T. Stagg||OO – Old Overholt||SmB – Small Batch|
|BC – Boone County||H21 – Hirsch 21||ORVW - Old Rip Van Winkle 10 yr||SW or S-W – Stitzel Weller|
|BF – Brown Forman||H22 – Hirsch 22||OS – Old Scout||THH - Thomas H. Handy Rye|
|BF – Brown Forman||Hazmat – Any whiskey over 140 proof (not allowed to go on a plane)||OT – Old Taylor||V17 / V21 / V23 – Vintage 17 etc.|
|BHC – Bourbon Heritage Collection||HH – Heaven Hill||OWA - Old Weller Antique 107||VOB – Very Old Barton|
|BIB – Bonded In Bond||HHSS – Heaven Hill Select Stock||OWO – Old Weller Original||VOF / VXOF / VVOF – Very Old, Very Xtra Old, Very Very Old Fitzgerald|
|BMH – Black Maple Hill||HW – High West||OESF – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast F||VOSN – Very Olde St Nick|
|BP – Barrel Proof||JB – Jim Beam||OESK – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast K||VSOF – Very Special Old Fitzgerald|
|BT – Buffalo Trace||JD – Jack Daniels||OESO – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast O||VWFRR – Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye|
|BTAC - Buffalo Trace Antique Collection||JPS – Jefferson’s Presidential Select||OESQ – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast Q||WFE – Willett Family Estate|
|BTEC - Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection||K&L – K&L Wine Merchants, store in San Francisco||OESV – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast V||WL12 – Weller 12 Year|
|CGF – Cheesy Gold Foil (Wild Turkey 12 yr)||KBD – Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (aka Willett)||OBSF – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast F||WLW – William Larue Weller|
|CoK – Cream of Kentucky||LDI – Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana||OBSK – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast K||WR – Woodford Reserve|
|CS – Cask Strength||LE – Limited Edition||OBSO – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast O||WSR – Weller Special Reserve|
|DSP – Distilled Spirits Plant number||Lot B – Pappy Van Winkle 12 yr||OBSQ – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast Q||WT – Wild Turkey|
|EC – Elijah Craig||M10 – Michter’s 10 Year SB||OBSV – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast V||WTAS – Wild Turkey American Spirit|
|ECBP - Elijah Craig Barrel Proof||M20 – Michter’s 20 Year SB||Pf – Proof||WTKS – Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit|
|EHT – Colonel E.H. Taylor||MGPI – MGP of Indiana, former Seagrams Distillery (formerly LDI)||PHC – Parker’s Heritage Collection||WTR – Wild Turkey Rye|
|EHTBP - E. H. Taylor Barrel Proof||MM – Maker’s Mark||POH – Promise Of Hope||WTRB – Wild Turkey Rare Breed|
|EHTLE - E. H. Taylor Limited Edition||MWND – Mid Winter Night’s Dram||PVW - Pappy Van Winkle||YO – Years old, as in 12YO|
Let us know in the comments what we should add to this Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon.
Start shopping for bourbon swag for your journey. The Bard’s Shop has custom tees and hoodies, books, barrels, and more.
Written by Matty Sims
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